By Michael LaBossiere
My adopted state of Florida has mandated that public universities offer 40% of undergraduate classes online by 2025. Some Florida universities have already jumped on the online bandwagon, perhaps because they can impose an extra distance learning fee on top of the standard tuition cost. The state legislature recently capped the fee at $30, although some schools already offer lower tuition and fees for students enrolled only in online classes. Governor Scott has contended that online classes should cost less than in-person classes. Proponents of the fee contend that it is needed to fund the development of online classes. This situation raises two important questions. One is the question of whether there should be such an emphasis on online classes. The other is the question of whether a special fee should be charged for such classes. I’ll begin with the question of the fee.
As noted above, the main justification for charging a distance learning fee for online classes is that the extra money is needed to develop such classes. This presumably includes the cost of developing the content of the class itself and the cost of the infrastructure to deliver it.
Since I have taught hybrid classes for years, I can attest to the fact that properly preparing an online class requires significantly more effort than properly preparing a traditional classroom class. One obvious factor is that an online class should include online media, such as videos and audio recordings. Creating such media is time consuming and requires both technical and media skills. Developing these skills requires training. Because more labor and training must be put into preparing an online class, it is reasonable to charge the extra fee.
One obvious counter to this is to point to my own experience: while I have undergone training for creating online classes, the entire workload of preparing my online classes has fallen on me and I do not get any extra pay to do this extra work. This is not unusual—my workload and performance are disconnected from my compensation. If this same practice is followed by other schools, then they would be hard pressed to justify the extra fees—unless they are fully justified by the cost of training faculty to do the extra work at no extra compensation. There is also the obvious fact that students do not pay an extra fee when they take a class from better paid professors, even though the professor thus imposes a greater cost on the school.
In terms of arguing against the fee, there is the claim that students who take online classes graduate faster than students who do not. Since Florida is pushing hard to reduce the time it takes to graduate, providing a disincentive to take online classes would run counter to that goal. There are also various financial arguments. One is that shifting classes online will reduce the need for classroom construction, which will save the state money (but cost construction jobs). If online classes save the state money, it makes it hard to argue that the extra fee is needed. Rather, this would support the claim that there should not be such a special fee.
While I rarely agree with Governor Scott, I do agree with him that there should not be a fee. I would hold to this position even if I was given extra compensation for teaching online classes—although I do not think that would ever happen. I now turn to the question of whether there should be a push for online classes.
One obvious concern about entirely online classes is that they have a significantly higher failure rate than hybrid and traditional classes. In some rare cases students forget they are even enrolled in online classes; but that also seems to happen in traditional classes. To be honest, classes are sometimes poorly designed by faculty who are struggling to operate well outside of their technical skills. Poorly designed or poorly run classes can certainly contribute to student failure.
There is also the fact that students are also often ill-equipped to learn from online classes. Speaking with students from various schools about online classes, the usual refrain I hear involves the poor quality of many of the courses and how hard it is to learn even in a well-designed class. Students also tend to admit that they are less motivated in online classes. Because of these factors, it makes sense that failure rates would be higher in online classes. There are, of course, some excellent online classes and students who can adapt effectively to online learning.
A second concern, which ties into the first, is the quality of learning in online classes. Obviously, poorly designed and poorly taught classes will leave students on their own when it comes to learning. But, even for well-designed and well-taught classes there is still the concern about student learning. Colleagues of mine have made the reasonable point that some classes would work poorly online, even if everyone was doing their best. To be fair, a similar complaint can be made about traditional and hybrid classes: how much do students really learn and how much do they retain? One might suspect that the answer to both is “very little.”
Faculty have also expressed some concern that the rise of online classes will mean that they will be replaced by “robots.” That is, automated online classes will be substituted for faculty taught classes, perhaps with graduate students or other low-cost labor hired to do such tasks as grading papers and answering questions. Some might see this as a good thing: not having to pay as many faculty could allow for lower tuition (or greater profits and administrator salaries). There would also be, to some, a benefit in having course content closely controlled by administrators.
On the positive side, online classes do allow students far more convenience. For example, people who work full-time can work online classes into their schedule even when they would be unable to attend classes on campus during normal times. Students can also take classes at universities far from where they live (although most online students do live near the campus) or simply avoid the hassle of trying to park on campus.
Because of these factors, my opinion on online classes is split. On the one hand, the flexibility that online classes offer is a significant plus. On the minus side, I do have concerns about the educational experience students might experience as well as the high failure rates that often plague such classes. That said, I do think that the failure rate problem can be addressed as can concerns about the quality of education in online classes.